Besides our work in the schools, we also had some time to explore some tourist attractions of Laos.
We spent most of our weekends in Vientiane exploring the city, since the capital of Laos is only a 40-minute car drive (15 km) from Ban Sikeud. Besides shopping opportunities on the night market and several little shops in the city centre, Vientane also offers some of the most famous attractions in Laos. We found that the best way around the city is renting a bike or a scooter, as these vehicles allow you to explore the outer districts and attractions as well.
Sights, points of interests, and tips:
- Bicycle trip: One of the easiest ways to explore Vientiane is by bike. The rent for the day is around 10.000 Kip (1,13 €) and the only thing one has to be aware of is that lockers are provided. If you take the bicycle tour recommended in the Lonely Planet travel guide you pass most of the tourist attractions in Vientane: the National Museum, That Luang, Patouxai, the Presidential Palace, different temples or the COPE Visitors Centre.
- The top of Patouxai: Climbing the stairs to the top of Patouxai is definitely worth every single step. The view over the city from up there is incredible and gives you an impression of how far Vientiane stretches out.
- Night market and morning market: The morning market at the Talat Sao Malls offers mainly goods for everyday life. These range from electronic devices, fabrics, and household goods to souvenirs. The big shopping outlet is open daily from around 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The night market in Vientiane stretches along the riverbank and offers souvenirs, clothing, and Chinese knick-knacks. It is usually set up every day between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.
- Massage: A not so secret insider tip is the herbal sauna which also offers massages next to Wat Sokpaluang near the German Embassy. It is easy to reach by bike or with a tuk tuk (rickshaw). Although Lao massages are rather rough compared to massages in Germany, it is a nice place to spend some relaxing hours.
On our third weekend in Laos we went on a 3-hour trip up north to visit Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is a small city next to the Nam Song River. It is surrounded by limestone karst mountains, setting the city into a breath-taking scenery. In the past, Vang Vieng was known for tubing, but one can also enjoy beautiful attractions like the Blue Lagoon, numerous caves and small hikes leading up to scenic views.
Sights, points of interest, and tips:
- Hike, cave and Blue Lagoon
One of the best options to explore the surrounding area is by motorbike. While we stayed in Vang Vieng we hired one for a day and rode the “West Vang Vieng Loop” motorcycle tour recommended by the Lonely Planet travel guide. However, since we started late in the day, we only managed to explore three of the recommended stops.
First we started with a hike up Pha Ngum – a rocky cliff with an observation deck on the top that provides an incredible view. The hike is very steep and the path is very rocky, so we recommend wearing proper hiking shoes. The scenic view from the top over the area is absolutely worth the effort.
After this exhausting hike we spent the afternoon at the Blue Lagoon. There we hopped into the water together with two coaches of Korean tourists. Although it can be very crowded, the Blue Lagoon is a nice spot to cool down and relax for a while. After our swim and some jumping from trees into the pond, we climbed a steep path up to Phou Kham Cave. Bringing your own flashlights or headlights along is a good idea. However, it is also possible to rent them at the entrance of the cave.
Unfortunatly, we did not have more time to finish the tour. After exploring the three stops, we all agreed that starting earlier in the day and riding round the whole loop in order to explore some more caves would have been best.
- Tubing, kayaking, climbing
In Vang Vieng several tour operators also offer trips to caves and waterfalls, rock climbing tours as well as tubing and kayaking on the Nam Song. If you want to take one of these tours, you can find many different offers for tours and tour combinations in the city centre of Vang Vieng – or ask at your guesthouse.
Luang Prabang, the former city of the King of Laos, is a must-see attraction for travellers. Although it is a rather touristic place, it has kept its small town charm and atmosphere. This might be mainly due to the fact that Luang Prabang became an official UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.
Sights, points of interests, tips:
- Old city
To get a good overview of the city, we rented some bikes and cycled around for a day. Although we focused on the old city with its attractions like the Royal Palace, different temples, especially Wat Xieng Thong and the top of Phousi at sunset, leaving the old city and adding attractions like the UXO Lao Visitor Centre, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre and Wat That Luang to your bike route is worth it.
- Night market
The night market of Luang Prabang is great for finding souvenirs to take back home. During our stay in Luang Prabang this market was set up every night and the vendors started selling their products at around 5 p.m. It begins near the Royal Palace and goes all the way to the tourist office at Inthasone Road. Concerning nice souvenirs, this night market is definitely preferable over the one in Vientiane.
- Ock Pop Tok
A very interesting place for anyone interested in textiles is the Living Crafts Centre of Ock Pop Tok (“East meets West”). One can catch a free tuk tuk from one of their stores in the old city. Free tours are offered at the centre, showing and explaining traditional textile techniques of weaving or batik techniques. It is also possible to take a class or workshop on natural dyes, weaving or batik there. These can take from half a day up to three days. But even if one just comes by for a tour, the centre also has a café, a little shop and a nice terrace with a wonderful view over the Mekong river.
You can find more information here: Ock Pop Tok
- Big Brothers Mouse / Traditional Storytelling
Concerning the English language and our teaching approaches we found two very interesting institutions in Luang Prabang.
The first one is Big Brother Mouse. Big Brother Mouse is an organisation that aims to improve literacy in Laos by publishing picture books in Lao and English and taking them to schools in remote areas. Besides their shop in Luang Prabang they also have one in Vientiane. Tourists can come to their shop in Luang Prabang at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to help young Laotians practise their English.
You can find more information about the organisation here: Big Brother Mouse
One evening we went to listen to a 1-hour session of traditional storytelling. A young man and his uncle told old traditional folk tales from Laos, mainly concerning Luang Prabang, for about one hour. The uncle was playing a traditional instrument and the young man was telling the stories directly in English. However, the small one-room theatre can be tricky to find. It is on Kounxoa Road near Wat Sene. Just look out for a sign on the corner of Sakkaline Road and Sisaeumasack Road between Wat Sene and Wat Sop Sickharam and follow the directions.
- Excursions / tours
To visit the sights and attractions outside Luang Prabang, like the Pak Ou Buddha Caves or the Kuang Si waterfall, many agencies offer half-day or one-day tours, often combining different attractions. Although it might take more organisational work, organising a tour yourself by renting a tuk tuk or a motorbike for a day can be cheaper and more fun. Visiting an elephant camp is an amazing experience but should be considered under ethical aspects. “The Elephant Village” can be a good option, as it is regarded as the most ethically responsible of the many elephant camps surrounding Luang Prabang. You can find more information here:
Text by: L. Kringe
Photos by: L. Kringe, T. Mayer, S. Schaedlich